The mommy wars at the movies

What does "Coraline" tell us about the contemporary American family?

By Judy Berman

Published February 9, 2009 4:22PM (EST)

Last week, Broadsheet writers debated the merits of "He's Just Not That Into You." And while that movie, as Reuters puts it, "defied the recessionary gloom" by pulling in $27.5 million (from an 80 percent female audience) to become the top movie of the weekend, another film with a younger, decidedly more empowered heroine also hit theaters. As girlfriends all over the country set out to relive the book that (may have) changed their dating lives forever, I stepped into the multiplex with a group of mostly male companions to experience "Coraline" in 3-D.

As you may have gleaned from the raft of glowing reviews, "Coraline" is a beautiful, twisted stop-motion fairy tale about a strong-willed but likable 11-year-old girl who finds a door that leads to a world just like her own, only better.

The Other Mother Coraline encounters in her newfound paradise is a saccharine '50s housewife who spends her time cooking delicious meals and gushing over her "daughter." It doesn't take long for Other Mother to become selfish and needy, begging and then demanding that Coraline remain in this bizarro realm forever.

Critics have pointed out the psychoanalytic undertones of this mother-daughter relationship. Both Salon's Stephanie Zacharek and the New York Times' A. O. Scott have called the film Freudian. " 'Coraline' suggests some of the ways parents try to hold onto us, to keep us from growing up and therefore leaving them forever," writes Zacharek. "It also flirts with the insidious rivalries that can crop up between mothers and daughters." Scott calls the Other Mother "a monster of misplaced maternal instinct."

But what's interesting to me about all of this is the mixed message the film sends about motherhood. Just about the only thing Coraline's two mothers have in common is that they are the driving force in each family. Her real mother dictates her father's work schedule, and he refers to her as "the boss"; the Other Mother, a nightmare vision of a domineering matriarch, has (SPOILER ALERT) created her world and everyone in it. The dads, of course, are completely emasculated.

I won't discount the dark, Freudian stuff. And it's possible the film is a subtle critique of female power in all its family-based forms. But there may be a feminist undertone there, too. As Coraline comes to learn, her distracted, overworked mother truly loves her. The Other Mother, however, exhibits all the selfish, neurotic delusion of a woman confined against her will to the domestic sphere -- an evil, supernatural Betty Draper, if you will. Neither is ideal, but we certainly know, by the end of the film, whom we prefer.  

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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